“I recognise that – we’ve been here before!” said my sister-in-law, as we passed a building for the second time, and we both tried to stifle our giggles. She was driving, and I was trying to navigate the tiny, narrow, frequently pedestrian-only streets of Brugge, with only a tiny map to guide us in our attempt to find our hotel. Fortunately, she’s a calm and patient driver. As long as I gave instructions, she didn’t mind encircling the town – twice – until we found the hotel. We found it, tucked away on a cobbled street in this small, Flemish town in Belgium. We were on a “girls’ trip” for a few days, and had driven up from Lille that morning. Brugge or Bruges (if you’re French speaking) was her favourite place to take visitors from her base in Amsterdam, and I was the lucky guest on this trip. As it turned out, this would be her last trip to Brugge, as her family were to leave shortly for Asia.
We wandered the streets of the World Heritage historic centre. Whilst the town dates back to Roman times, its heyday was in medieval times, when it was an important European centre of trade, waterways from the coast were navigable by ship. Inside the city, the river had been turned into a network of canals that enabled traders to bring their products to market. These canals are edged with well-preserved examples of the Gothic architecture of the times. The combination of canals, cobbled streets, and medieval buildings could, in the quieter alleyways, allow you to imagine life there in the Middle Ages.
We were there in spring; May in Europe, and the weather was beautiful. It was not too hot, making it perfect for walking, but bright and sunny. Best of all, the hordes of summer tourists hadn’t yet descended on the town. So we set out, my sister-in-law trying to remember where to go to get to some of the main sights – the Markt square, the Burg (or town hall), and the convent. We meandered, enjoying the process of exploration. Each turn in Bruges yields new, photogenic vistas of cobble-stoned streets, of spires, of swans, of canals and churches, of squares, and chocolateries. The destinations weren’t important – although we did get everywhere we wanted – but it was the journey, the pleasure of walking, that was so enjoyable. Travel guides often say that you must ensure you get lost in Venice. I’d also suggest getting lost in Brugge.
As we wandered the streets, my sister-in-law (a Catholic) pointed out one of the reasons she loves Brugge. On almost every street corner, you’ll find a statue of Mary, set into the building itself. “I’ve always thought I’d photograph them, and make an advent calendar from the photographs, but just never got around to it,” she said, shrugging. “Let’s do it then,” I said, waving my camera. And so part of our adventure was hunting down the next photogenic Mary, my sister-in-law stopping the traffic (often a horse and carriage full of tourists) whilst I stood in the middle of the road taking the photograph. We managed to find 11. Here they are:
There’s no shortage of resting places in Brugge. You can sit on the grass beside a canal, or find a bar for a glass of rose or Belgium beer. Lunch has to include a hot, fragrant pot of mussels, and pommes frites on the side. This is not a place to call these French fries, as earliest records show we can thank Belgium for them. In spring, we were able to enjoy them outside, under a tree, soaking in the medieval atmosphere of the buildings, at the same time as a tour group on Segways glide by. (I made a conscious “note to self” at the time: this is how to be a tourist when I’m old and unable to walk!) There are other delicacies you should try in Belgium of course, and waffles with sugar, or strawberries and cream, can fill any gaps you might have between lunch and dinner. Or simply replace one of those meals. You’re on holiday, after all!
For our evening meal I refused to sit at a touristy restaurant in the square, with a nice view but average to poor food and high prices. I had searched the Michelin Red Guide for recommended, reasonably priced restaurants, and we visited one near our hotel. We were both rather casually dressed and a little embarrassed once we saw the white table linens, silver cutlery, and experienced the wonderful food and service. When travelling in France or elsewhere in Europe, I can’t recommend the Red Guide highly enough. I have never had a bad meal at a Michelin recommended restaurant. These restaurants, cafes and bars are little gems that locals like to visit, hidden away in an alleyway, producing divine food.
Brugge or Bruges is probably even busier now, as a result of the 2008 movie, In Bruges, with Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes. The movie is set in winter, the gloom and mist giving the town an eerie, more medieval feel, and it showcases the town’s beauty.
Finally, I need to mention that Brugge claims to be the world’s capital of chocolate. There is a chocolaterie about every 20 metres. The beauty of these tiny chocolate shops is that we could buy just one chocolate at a time, thus convincing ourselves that we were really being quite restrained, even if we stopped regularly for “just one more.” The chocolate is surely reason enough to go on its own.